At a time when prog and glam were in the ascendant, Medicine Head stood out—or rather, they didn’t. Their lack of showiness just made them look all the more freakish: a two man band consisting of a singer-guitarist (who also handled kick drum and high hat) and a Garfunkel-like assistant on harmonica. There is something ascetic and hobbled about them. Their sound, however, is all the more remarkable for being so pared down and rudimentary. Even at their most hard-rocking, they could still be sketchy in their approach.
We’ve all seen those classic album documentaries during which a wizened engineer will fade a song’s constituent parts in and out—and there’s always that eerie moment, when suddenly we hear an old song anew because just one or two of its ingredients have been isolated. Well, Medicine Head, at their best, seemed to thrive on that same eeriness, tearing just a few threads from a larger tapestry and letting them lie there in a crumpled heap. Here you go.
The band did, however, have two wildly opposing sides to their sound. One side was a brand of British Blues that was ad-hoc and anti-purist (e.g. they weren’t seeking to replicate the blues, but to mess around with it in the abstract). The other was a blend of psychedelic folk that, because of the band’s format, came out dirge-like and otherworldly, as if The Velvet Underground had gone and produced a Donovan album.
It was John Peel who rush-released a Medicine Head demo titled ‘His Guiding Hand’ as the band’s first single in 1969.This was the same year as Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ so the un-ironic religiosity of the song isn’t completely out of left field. What is striking is its melancholy, accentuated by the low-key vocal and the accordion-like drone of the harmonica playing. Here we have a blurring of the Sacred and Profane, a redemptive longing, which wouldn’t have been out of place in Donne or Herbert: ‘He put me in the spirit. He took the tooth by the jaw. He brought me to his feet with his guiding hand.’
Also remarkable is how these two guys could shift gears completely and still (due to limits in instrumentation and personnel) sound like the same band. Listen to the way they tackle Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,’ and manage to actually turn it into a blues, albeit one that sounds like it’s about to be exiled on main street. Unlike Nina Simone’s beautiful, languid cover from the year prior, or even Dylan’s original, this is not pretty stuff. This is sun-stroked and hungover with the dust in its eyes. Listening to it, I’m always reminded of a joke Dylan made in an interview when asked about a screenplay he was supposedly writing. Asked what kind of film it was, Dylan replied, ‘a cowboy horror movie’. For me, this will always be the track that should have played over the opening credits. words / dk o’hara